If you jumped in late, these essays are nto by me--they're by a pair of anonymous DIY RPG peeps who were both assigned to write about: How your relationship to your player character changes over time for the contest.
Anybody reading is eligible to vote for which one you like best and voting will be cut off once all the votes for all the first round Thought Eater essays are up...
If you like this one better, send an email with the Subject "CHANGE1" to zakzsmith AT hawt mayle or vote on Google +. Don't put anything else in the email, I won't read it.
I think that our relationships with our characters changes as we change. They are a part of us, after all. Even the big ones, the ones that sort of split off and become their own personality, they are still "us" in a fundamental way.
I'm thinking about maturity here, particularly. As I enter in to middle age, I can see how the world has changed a lot, become both larger and smaller. This has greatly affected how I feel about both my older characters and the ones I make now. When you're young and immature, the world is simple, characters tend to follow the same pattern- a single class, or a "tribute character". You play what you know, what you think is cool. Characters are more of a mask you wear, then a different person.
Get a little older, and the world becomes suddenly very wide and open. Things are not only new, but you have the complexity to understand them more. Characters are taken in new directions- old ones are given new faces, and new characters are a little less like ourselves, and more like what we want to be (or think we want to be). Characters at this time are a work of art- you take the time to craft every aspect, get them just right.
After that, it's all about refinement. You drop characters that don't mean so much, and you're more likely to let characters grow organically- sometimes to the point of having characters marry, have kids, and retire.
I've found that the characters that last the longest, are the ones that go organic. When you have a character real enough to grow with you, they stick by you, like an old friend. You grow to know their scars. For me, finding a character like that is one of the great rewards of gaming.
If you like this one better, send an email with the Subject "CHANGE2" to zakzsmith AT hawt mayle or vote on Google +. Don't put anything else in the email, I won't read it.
In thinking about a player’s relationship with their characters, I first started thinking about different stages characters might pass through. New characters, veteran characters, broken characters, etc. That approach seemed limited to just description, and therefore would just be a useless taxonomy. Is there commonality between these stages? Are there ways to examine how games and campaigns might shape the way players related to their characters?
There are major differences in the way that players think about their characters across games, genres, styles, and campaigns. An investigator in Call of Cthulhu, a troubleshooter in Paranoia, a thief in Swords & Wizardry, or a loser in Fiasco all have players approaching them very, very differently. It’s worth looking at a few components that feed into player/character relationships and think about how they’re shaped by games and the environment around those games. And, of course, how these factors can change over time.
Customization: The more a player is able to modify a character and make it their own, the more that character becomes memorable to the player. Elements of wish fulfillment can come in with some players and in some games as well, and the player’s imagination can be fueled by the opportunity to make the character their own. A system with greater options during character creation allows for potentially greater investment in a character, or at a minimum, a greater sense of ownership.
As time moves on, many systems allow for more or fewer options for customization as characters gain experience. A system like Pathfinder/D&D 3.5 has vast options for characters to advance. The plethora of multi-classing options, feats, skills, and everything else lets players express their creativity, and can deepen their attachment. In most D&D derived games, there are significant opportunities to modify characters as the campaign continues.
In other games based around campaigns, characters might not change significantly as time goes on. In many superhero systems, for example, characters might gain resources but their abilities often don’t change much. In these other types of systems, we wouldn’t expect the player’s relationship with their character to change much as a consequence of the Customization variable over time.
Control: In some games, a player is solely responsible for the actions of their character. Or, at least, is close to solely responsible. In others, events in the game will constrain choices, or the GM or other players might exert more control over the character. The more a player has control over their character, the stronger their relationship will be to that character. With less player control, other elements of the game such as the game world, the story, or other aspects become more important to players.
The style of game being run can change the level of control as well. A sandbox style of gameplay can increase a player’s feeling of control, as their characters become a driving force in the narrative and end up with considerable freedom of action. A campaign based around a particular story arc is going to be more constrained, more on rails, with a corresponding decrease in player control.
For the most part, the player’s control over their character won’t really change with time. Most of the factors playing into control are inherent to the system, campaign, or particular game, and those factors are unlikely vary without the players and GM making conscious decisions to make those changes. There are exceptions, though, as players may discover things about their game that illuminate their level of control, with a corresponding change in their relationship with their character.
Attachment: How much does the game encourage players to be attached to their character? Are characters disposable? Is character death frequent and understood, or a shocking event? Are characters intended to just play the part in their story, or are they generating the story? In a lot of ways, this is one of the harder factors to tie back to mechanics, but it’s unmistakably affected by the game. A high-attachment game will encourage the players to view things through the lens of their characters, as their primary way of recalling the events of the game later. A low-attachment game will instead cause people to think first of the world or story, and describe what happened at a level of remove from their characters.
Of course, attachment will generally increase with time. A player becomes more comfortable with their character, they acquire more of a history, there are more fond memories of a character. This, of course, is increased in games that encourage players to play in longer campaigns, and in campaigns with relatively high survivability.
Putting these factors together, it can be fun to look at some systems and see what types of character relationships they might encourage. OSR games tend to be pretty high in all three factors, with a fair bit of customization, strong character control, and high attachment through longer campaigns. High death tolls can chip away at the attachment, but a character that survives the gauntlet is especially prized. Later versions of D&D arguably measure even higher on these scales, with the additional character options available, although I think the differences are probably negligable. Many older RPGs fall into similar patterns: Traveller, Warhammer, Rolemaster/Spacemaster, Cyberpunk - all of the games of these systems that I’ve played in have fostered similar relationships between players and characters.
Paranoia would be an example of a game at the other end of the spectrum from D&D. There are few meaningful options for characterization, the players all have the same role in the game, player control is pretty minimal as they are often just props in set pieces, and attachment to a Paranoia character is laughable. Something like Fiasco scores some points on customization, encouraging players to be creative with their characters, although they’re constrained by the relationships chosen for them during the character generation process. However, it’s fairly low on player control, as other players can put you in scenes and your choices can be quite constrained. As a game of one-offs which also encourages player deaths, attachment is extremely low.
Most of the story-based games I’ve played have tended to encourage fairly low attachment and control, as your characters are secondary to telling the story the game wants you to tell, and you’re expected to behave in the “right” way to keep the story moving. There are exceptions: Amber is a game where player control is about as high as possible, and it’s geared towards longer campaigns, although the customization end of things is fairly low. Nobilis is another game featuring very high player control, reasonable customization, but with low attachment, with much of the game being somewhat at a remove from the characters.
Thinking of player relationships in terms of these factors can allow players and GMs to explicitly shape one or more of them in their campaigns, and might allow them to make changes as the game goes on. Allowing for more options when levelling characters can increase player investment through greater customization. Ensuring players have agency in the campaign’s direction as time moves on can increase their control. Even just giving players a fair environment to keep their characters alive can increase their attachment. Or, if players are looking for a different sort of game, these kinds of factors can be reversed as time winds on, providing a different feel than earlier in a campaign, moving focus onto the story or world elements.